Part of the motivation for reading literary fiction is the hunt for new uses of language. The search for exciting and innovative plots, characterisation, and structures helps to make the appellation ‘literary’ more than posturing. When a piece of fiction tries something genuinely new it transmits to the reader a certain excitement, a new awareness of the possibilities of language. This sense of excitement is also a key part of what has made the emerging generation of Irish novelists so, well, exciting. Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney and other writers have found an audience by cultivating genuinely original styles. McBride’s syntactically twisted interiority in The Lesser Bohemians explored a different student experience; the compelling but fraught tensions of a love affair with an older partner. Anne Burns’ recently inaugurated Booker success, Milkman is now surprising a newly enlarged audience with her brilliantly unique description of life and adolescence in the Troubles.
Caoilinn Hughes is a member of this exciting generation. While her career has thus far focused on poetry, she made a promising foray into prose with her debut novel, Orchid and the Wasp, published in the Summer of 2018. The novel tells the story of Gael Foess, a millennial who lives in Dublin. Orchid follows Gael from the age of 11 into her early twenties. It details the fallout of the twin collapses of her upper middle-class family and the Irish economy in 2008. Gael is an ambitious and confident young person, and much of the action of the novel concerns her attempts to escape the dual snares of national recession and her family’s breakdown via a sequence of semi-legitimate business schemes. Her travels across Europe and the world are not due to a nationalist disillusionment with the missed opportunities of independence, but instead to find new business opportunities amidst a global recession, against the arrogant and bloated capitalism of the Celtic Tiger years that serves as an abstract antagonist of sorts.
Gael is a compelling protagonist, motivated both by personal traumas as well as ideas of social justice, worth, and the ethics of capitalism. Gael struggles throughout the novel to marry the prosaic and arid understanding of economic-speak with the messy realities of interpersonal relationships. Her insistence on referring to human interactions in business terms (‘new strategy’, ‘asset’) is not a sign of emotional vapidity, but a defence mechanism. Gael is afraid of hurting her Mother, Sive, and brother, Guthrie, in the same way their father, Jarleth, did. This is not aided by the similarities between Gael and Jarleth, both of whom are capable businesspeople. She runs from those she loves because she fears her capacity to undermine them. It is to Hughes’ credit that she expresses this familiar character dialectic in a sympathetic manner, enabling the reader to feel concern and pity for a protagonist who actively discourages sympathy.
Gael is at her most sympathetic when she is overextending herself and placing demands on her body far too great to bear. She manages to jog many blocks around Manhattan before realising that she hasn’t eaten that day. She later gets annoyed at subsequently getting the flu, and regards vomiting and passing out during a crucial conversation as an embarrassment more than a warning sign. Despite having such control over her words and actions, Gael seems a stranger to her own body, alienated from its presence and annoyed when it buckles under the unreasonable demand she makes of it. In her writing about the body, Hughes is following a common theme in the new generation of Irish writers of which she is a part. The eponymous Girl in McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing regards the abuse her own body receives from a succession of men with the detached disinterest of a scientist checking cell cultures. The bodies of these protagonists may no longer be considered property of the Catholic Church or Irish state, but still do not seem to belong to commands the interest of the reader. She always has a route out of a crisis via an intelligent quip. Every character wants to have sex with her. An unfortunate distance between the character of Gael and the relatable emotional problems at the heart of the novel is created. These dialectics – of leaving home versus self- actualisation, of love for your family versus resentment of their presence – are quotidian, and Gael is too removed to feel fully connected such things. A dissonance is felt between them, and not, I think, the one intended by the author.
The stumbles in characterisation also extend to what is otherwise a highlight of the novel: the relationship between Gael and her father, Jarleth. He is portrayed as the hypocritical essence of the boom years, combining a moralising religious language with a selfish and self-promoting business practice. Gael’s relationship with him is marked by a strange mixture of contempt and respect. She dislikes her father’s domineering style of parenting and narcissism while also attempting to emulate his success. Father and daughter share numerous dialogues that sound more like the competitive verbal sparring of a business school seminar than of filial pedagogy. He teaches Gael Bible parables with adapted morals, fusing religious instruction and sales classes.
At times, Jarleth is more of a caricature than a character. His dialogue is replete with neoliberal cliché, to the point of unintentional bathos. During a highly dramatic confrontation with Gael, Jarleth defends his failure as a parent as having done his ‘level best to pass along the rules of the game’, and urges Gael to ‘play fairly to see what [she’s] made of’, while ‘using the toothpick to relive an incisor of olive skin.’ The metaphor of ‘the game’, overexaggerated nonchalance communicated by picking his teeth, the unnecessary dramatic pause – this is Jarleth portrayed as a Bond villain.
Plants, and specifically flowers, are associated throughout Orchid with predatory behaviour and self-interest. When a young Gael gathers her school friends to hear about her investment opportunity of ‘virginity pills’ they are described as ‘surrounding her like petals round a pollen packet.’ Gael is thus introduced along with the predatory and creative sides of her personality, the nuance and ambiguity of this mixture conveyed by Hughes’ atypical presentation of flowers.
Also striking is Hughes’ use of music to describe frustrated artistic ambition, as opposed to deploying it to demonstrate unbounded expression. This is done both through the character of Gael’s mother, Sive, as well as by sensitive descriptions of the ambiguities of music. At the start of Orchid, Sive is conductor of the RTE national orchestra (the Republic of Ireland’s counterpart to the BBC’s radio orchestras). She loses her position after the 2008 crash, one of the first fatalities of austerity’s campaign against the arts. Sive’s final concert is strikingly described as a sort of prolonged existential crisis, making the familiar uncanny with panache.
Nothing familiar in the cadences, comforting and dull as the pulse goes: so la, doh me, so fah, so so, a progression you’ve heard before. The key, a tonic, No, no. This swarm of throbbing temperamental strings, the shifting direction of the wind, abstruse tubas, this sound lifts its audience lifts – and drops them. The first movement ends.
Although Hughes’ literary career thus far has focused on poetry, but Orchid is plotted with the skill of a much more experienced writer – a feat, considering that this is Hughes’ debut novel. The plot spans multiple countries and almost a decade of time. The action, particularly in the second half of the book, moves fast and throws up numerous unexpected turns. Hughes manages to foreshadow surprises deftly; the seeds of future misfortune within Gael’s actions are telegraphed without being highlighted. The result is a satisfying plot, with real stakes and drama, without being cheap or cheesy, showing that Hughes knows how to earn a twist.
Alongside these structural harmonies, Hughes embellishes Orchid with numerous linguistic grace notes. She has a skill for collective nouns, coining, ‘a delinquency of thieves’ and ‘a murder of black town cars’ among others. She also has an ear for accents. She manages to capture Dublin Irish, Belfast Irish, Northern English, southern American and New York voices at different points in Orchid. The self-reflexive non-phrases of northern Irish speech brilliantly (‘Noble sort of person. He has a gift, so he does. Sure you must know that. And you his sister’) are included. This fantastic ventriloquising is evidence of Hughes’ studies at Queen’s University Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre. She is not, however, completely successful in her efforts at accented voices. Sive’s boyfriend Art is supposedly from Yorkshire, but his speech sounds distinctly Lancastrian. Gael’s friend Harper has a vocabulary too dense with Americanisms to be believable (‘Someone’s gotta give em beef’, ‘make like Nancy and Just Say No’, ‘“That blows.” “It sure does, Harper”’). While varying in success, Hughes’ attempts at imitation convey the defining feature of her writing — curiosity.
Whether in verse or in the pages of Orchid, Hughes’ writing is always an inquiry. She seeks understanding and then communicates this understanding to her readers, resulting in well-conveyed abstractions. In her verse, these concepts are often scientific. Hughes’ poetry collection, Gathering Evidence, features numerous pieces on scientific themes, celebrating both the beauty of nature and the achievements of scientific inquiry. Hughes’ verse delights in the ideas it describes, and Orchid bears the traces of this intelligence and curiosity, as well as Hughes’ taste for the conceptual.
The abstractions on which the novel focuses are social, political and moral, and especially concerned with rising inequality. Orchid brilliantly describes the textures of both poverty and luxury. The deprived life the Foess family is forced into is sensitively displayed in a scene where Gael cuts her brother Guthrie’s hair in the living room of a damp, mostly unfurnished apartment. In conveying luxury, Hughes describes clothes brilliantly, with a level of insight on the meaning of fashion that is all too rare in literary fiction. She luxuriates in the description of expensive clothing, making the attraction of the lifestyle they denote easily explicable — ‘a dark-green blazer, rolled at the wrists to reveal cream silk lining with minuscule black polka dots’, ‘a crisp cream bodycon dress with a belt of plaited black and cream leather strands, gold-buckled, to match the gold buttons of the blazer…’ Gael understands that so much of being a one percenter is looking like one, conveyed vividly through Hughes’ poetic attention to detail, the brevity of the individual lines contrasting with the hyperbolic closeness of the description.
Hughes’ extraordinary ability to capture the feeling of impoverished or opulent life is just one of her many talents on display in the pages of Orchid. It is a difficult novel to do justice to, for it is brimming with ideas, and the pace of their arrival and quality of their treatment is noteworthy. Hughes’ panoptic curiosity is expressed throughout.
By the time the novel draws to a satisfying close, most readers will be convinced of the author’s abilities. She has a poet’s eye for small details and a compelling personal idiom. Orchid represents an exciting first step into prose for Caoilinn Hughes, and shows her to be a writer whose skills far exceed what one expects of a debut novelist.